Virtuous Circle or Vicious Circle?

Probably much of the political rancour in contemporary society is owing to two competing narratives, which can be summarised in terms of “virtuous circle” (or virtuous cycle) and “vicious circle” (or vicious cycle) particularly in terms of neo-liberal globalisation or “free market” economics. The notion of a “virtuous circle”, connected with the idea of the provenance and essential benevolence of the Invisible Hand, informs the neo-liberal mantra “a rising tide lifts all boats”. On the contrary, say its opponents, “your virtuous circle is a delusion” and they point to massive inequality, environmental destruction, climate change, recession, and other symptoms of growing social crisis as proof that, realistically, the “virtuous circle” is actually a vicious circle.

In those terms, they can point to “unintended consequence”, “ironic reversal”, “perverse outcome”, “revenge effect”, “blowback”, and ironic reversal generally as proof that the “virtuous circle” is a persistent, entrenched delusion, and that in reality our age is trapped in a death spiral — a vicious cycle.

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that the weight of evidence from the real world is firmly on the side of the “vicious circle”. Yet, these facts, quite evident and undeniable as they are, are indeed denied by very large constituencies — one of the great ironies of the times being even, that the greater the weight of evidence that we’ve entered into a vicious circle/death spiral, the greater the loyalty and allegiance to the narrative of capitalism’s “virtuous circle”.

I was thinking about that conflict as I was reading yet another parsing of Donald Trump’s constituency in the United States that appeared in today’s Guardian. It’s by JD Vance and is called “How Donald Trump seduced America’s white working class“. Even Vance’s somewhat sympathetic approach to Trump’s supporters can’t overlook the irrationalities and self-contradictions of their beliefs.

Is this not the same constituency that embraced neo-liberal economics in the first place?; the same constituency that fell for the propaganda of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and “a rising tide lifts all boats” and the hokum about “the virtuous circle”?; the same constituency that, nonetheless, voted for austerity, privatisation, and deregulation of the “free market” in the name of “the virtuous circle”? Is this not the same constituency that now denies any connection between consequences and outcomes and its own beliefs and actions even as it has become abundantly evident that the “virtuous circle” is a hoax? As long as globalisation of the “virtuous circle” appeared unidirectional (which is to say, imperialistic) it was embraced. But globalisation is not only bidirectional, it is multidirectional. As long as it was about a McDonald’s or a KFC or a Starbuck’s on every corner, it was alright. But when it suggested  “taco trucks on every corner”, it became not alright. Now it becomes cultural imperialism and a threat to “white identity”, which is, apparently, identical with McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s and Walmart on every corner.

So, now it’s a matter of “making America Great Again”. Just when was that? Apparently the 50s, when millions were lifted out of poverty, joined the middle class, moved to the suburbs, and indulged in an orgy of consumption largely driven by the advertising industry, before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shook up our complacency about the environment, before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movements, or the “counterculture”, peaceniks, and so on — a time, apparently, when the “virtuous circle” worked.

That seems to be the mythology of the Lost Paradise, anyway. But it is irrational. North America, in general, emerged unscathed by the destruction and devastation of the World War, which, for a while, eliminated all potential “competitors”, but which was bound to be a transient glory. Moreover, it was the widespread adoption of Keynesian welfare economics (or “New Deal” in the United States) and the social supports and public infrastructure it provided that raised millions out of the conditions of “rugged individualism” into middle class and suburban comfort (a mixed blessing perhaps). As has been noted, this New Deal, or more broadly the public welfare state, probably saved capitalism’s bacon since the great fear at that time, following the war demobilisation, was that, with peace, the conditions of the Great Depression and the law of the jungle as “virtuous circle” would resume.

Keynesian welfare state economics ran into its own limits in the self-contradiction called “stagflation”. Neo-liberalism became the cure for the self-contadiction of Keynesianism. But now, neo-liberalism is running into its own limits of the reasonable and into its own self-contradictions, particularly with the Great Market Meltdown of 2008. Cant’ go back. Can’t go forwards. Predicament. Dilemma. Drift. Vicious circle.

A lot of political “dog and pony shows” are arranged these days that are no more than public confidence building exercises — the appearance of having things in hand, but probably more to uphold the delusion, or deception, of the efficacy of the “virtuous circle”, which has become more a case of pissing against the wind.

But that is, in a nutshell, Vance’s “seduction”. It’s the persistence of that core “deception” which Adam Smith promoted in his Parable of the Poor Man’s Son. And is not Adam Smith’s “deception” but a persistence of Plato’s “Noble Lie”? That raises the question of whether there isn’t a fundamental and necessary deception or delusion at the very roots of the mental-rational consciousness structure that has become unconscious, and that might even be necessary for the mental-rational to function at all.

Apparently, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to persuade the true believers to re-examine the “virtuous circle” story and meme. Indeed, the very defence of it has ceased to be reasonable at all, the assumption now being that, if it’s not working, somebody or something is to blame and their elimination  — of them or of their influence — will restore the virtuosity.

Some observers, contra Vance, have disputed, though, that Trump’s core constituency is “angry white working-class males”, such as Ken Boag who notes,

According to the Gallup results, those who support Trump are slightly better off economically and employment-wise than people who don’t support him. While they are likely to live in areas that have suffered economically, they are also likely to be better off than their neighbours, and to have been spared the worst effects of the 2008 recession.

They are also significantly less likely to live in communities where there is a substantial immigrant population. In other words, Trump supporters are less likely than other Americans — and less likely even than other Republicans — to have regular personal experiences with immigrants.

In other words, Trump’s core constituency is actually what is termed “petite bourgeois” or “lower middle class” (ie, the famous “Little Guy”) — fearful of falling into, or back into, the lower class but frustrated in its aspirations to become “middle class” and so feels “squeezed” between two fates, as it were. This is, traditionally, the core constituency of the radical right everywhere, and that’s what Boag has described here.

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10 responses to “Virtuous Circle or Vicious Circle?”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I probably should have mentioned in the post that Arlie Hochschild’s “deep story” (previously discussed at

    https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/arlie-hochschilds-great-paradox/#more-6699

    that resonated with her Trump-supporter informants positions them exactly in this “petite bourgeoisie” in the “queue” with the “lower classes” (so perceived) behind them and the great middle class ahead of them. That kind of position in the story could only resonate with those who are very self-consciously “lower middle class” in their perception of things.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    When the divine plan for human dialogue and struggle toward a better human society that knows what is allowed and what is not allowed is replaced by a plan fabricated by human nihilism that knows no limits. When the criteria of good and bad,liars and truth=tellers,honest and dishonest are replaced by white and black.liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary. When the virtual cycles and vicious cycles are misapplied. one should not be surprised to see all these mentally psychopath filling the space and contaminating everything beautiful. It is tragic to see some are unaware of the changes the time has brought about in its evolving movement. It is sad but is expected for those who refuse the flowing nature of life and refuse to acknowledge that there is a force that runs everything around including the humans who are misguided and misdirected in believing that they are the only players in town. This language of all is not only divisive but untruthful and does not serve the people they use it, but alas the non-stop train of language abuse is delivering its cargo skilfully. The train is a mean that we can fill with anything we want like the tide that raises the boats irrespective of its cargo. As Schoun the french sufi said , all our miseries are the effect of our separation from the divine principle. The human is predicated to be free but he must not forget that this freedom is accountable to the one he has thrown out of his lexicon. The path to god is not a safe path but a path that is filled with dangerous adventures and the death of god becomes possible when the honest faithful loses his adventurous spirit. Profaning the image of god in oneself is the gravest sin, and what we see around is the fruits of that profanation.You put me in pain but it seems pain is one of the main door to him. I hit the link to read Vance article but the link led me to the title of your post as explained by Wikipedia.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    When the nation has two gods and point its finger to others, forgetting itself as the real enemy. When america is valued more than the other real god and the worshipers want to make the america god great, oblivious of their responsibility to the real god. Something is boiling which needs be addressed by those who really care. When the billionaires call not to help the needy and the poor and the administrations leave the schools and under-structure in ruin and their government send drones to kill blindly, it is time to wake up and to realize that the destruction you are doing into others is turning back to inflict on you what you have inflicted on others.. Nothing in the divine realm goes unnoticed, one has to be careful for no one is saved from the invisible hand which has been mistakenly interpreted by our narcissistic friends. The friends that need to wake up before they get hit because no one is safe from the trickery of god but the losers. My mentioning Schuon in my former comment recalls to my mind his friend Rene Guenon who they said wrongly that he has been converted to Islam while in reality he has never left Christianity but he becomes christian moslem, like myself I feel I am moslen christian. This remind me of Ibn Arabi saying that he worshiped god in all forms because no forms contain his formlessness and he does not want to miss him. Sometime I feel I am not speaking the words but the words are speaking through me.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Timely. So was this repost…yesterday…from 2001.

      “America is getting angrier and more afraid every day because the negative seeds are being watered, and that is why we need people who have the capacity to water the good seeds…. I think in everyone there is the wisdom that violence will lead to violence. But anger and fear don’t allow that wisdom to come to light.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

      • Scott Preston says :

        Yeah… seems very relevant to my next post on “the return of history” lecture series as well (which I just put up moments ago).

        It’s not just America either. We’ve just gone through an election battle last year, very similar. Canada also has its “Trumpistas”, as it were. So does the UK and the EU and elsewhere. Why and how this “wave” of angry and irrational trolling affects some segments of the population and not others is something I’m trying to figure out.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          “Return of History….” And I almost added ‘Back to the Future’ to that first line.

          I’m not sure the ‘wave of angry and irrational trolling’ proves much to figure out. It appeals to those who are more frightened and angry than others due to their own incredibly precarious circumstances. It’s the ‘mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore’ mentality. Trump is playing into that and revered as an ‘outsider’ here. (That’s the real mystery, considering he’s been on the inside, so to speak, of the “vicious circle” — or cycle, in my language — for decades.)

          Those who aren’t as angry support Clinton, of course. Who else are they going to support? A third party candidate? A write-in? Everyone knows they’ll never win, so few ever vote for them…if they’re even aware they exist.

          Bread and Circuses.

          For the moment, at least, communication has not broken down entirely. #NoDAPL has been heard — wordwide — and responded to, for example.

          If there’s one thing the Obama administration has done right, it has been to work on rebuilding relatonships severed long ago.

          • Scott Preston says :

            For the moment, at least, communication has not broken down entirely. #NoDAPL has been heard — wordwide — and responded to, for example

            Yes, tentatively anyway. Also looks like we’ve succeeded in killing off the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Energy East Pipeline in Canada. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the backlash, which I’m sure is going to come.

  4. Charles Leiden says :

    Good writing Scott. Crazy times indeed.

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